NOSTROMO: A LEGEND BORN AND BORN AGAIN
This is commercial towing vehicle Nostromo out of the Solomons, registration number 1-8-0-niner-2-4-6-0-niner.
ALIEN began as a singular vision of screenwriter Dan O’Bannon.
The inspiration, the legend goes, came to him during a bad case of food poisoning. During his gastronomic misery—something that now might now be attributable to the Chrohn’s disease from which he secretly suffered for decades—O’Bannon envisioned an alien creature bursting out from his tortured innards. From that moment forward, the creative spark haunted him like a lucid, waking dream.
O’Bannon had to see it realized.
But he didn’t want to tread the path that had been taken before. With the exception of Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, science fiction really hadn’t been given a dramatic treatment yet in film. Most of it was like STAR WARS which, while very successful, was the stuff of myth and fantasy to O’Bannon. Not reality.
Instead, he wanted to create a very specific science fiction world. Something that felt lived in. Something inherently real. From the characters to the places they lived and worked to the language they used, O’Bannon saw a fully realized future world that was an extrapolation of our own present. One that drew upon the same apprehensions and issues with which he was faced. To make this happen, O’Bannon and producing partner Ron Schuset began assembling what O’Bannon called his “dream team” of designers and artists: Ron Cobb, Chris Foss, Moebius (Jean Giraud) and the now-legendary H.R. Giger.
The dream team set out to breathe reality into O’Bannon’s science fiction world for their new boss, a popular British commercial director named Ridley Scott.
One of the most important pieces of the ALIEN puzzle was the commercial towing vehicle Nostromo, registration number 1-8-0-niner-2-4-6-0-niner. Because, other than a short detour to the planet Acheron (re-dubbed LV-426 by the sequel’s director James Cameron), the whole of the action in ALIEN took place on that fated towing vessel.
The Nostromo, Italian for “mate” or “boatswain,” derives its namesake from the titular anti-hero from Joseph Conrad’s 1904 novel of the same name, a source of great inspiration to O’Bannon. In fact, the fictional mining town where much of Conrad’s novel takes place lends its name to another famed space vessel in the ALIEN universe. That town’s name? Sulaco.
The Nostromo spacecraft was conceived in the vivid minds of Ron Cobb and Chris Foss, both of them already famed conceptual artists when they began work on the film. Cobb came from an industrial background, referring to himself as a “frustrated engineer,” whereas Foss was more “Giger-esque” in his approach to design, dreaming up a spacecraft that felt more other-worldly, or even alien[FONT=Arial, sans-serif] in their aesthetic. The two sequestered themselves away for months to work on creating the Nostromo from scratch. Cobb was meant to tackle the interiors—seen as a much more engineering-like task—while Foss was intended to divine the ship’s exterior. However, the two found that their individual creative processes were not mating up. Cobb’s designs began with function and found their way to form whereas Foss’s approach was the opposite. That’s probably why, after months of work and dozens of conceptual sketches, it was Ron Cobb’s extremely engineer-like design that landed on the desk of visual effects supervisor Brian Johnson.
The challenge now? Someone had to build it.
Someones, that is. Brian Johnson assembled a talented design team composed of now-famous effects artists such as Nick Allder, Ron Hone, Simon Deering Jon Sorenson, Martin Bower and Martin Gant. Their work would be done at Bray Studios outside London. The Nostromo began life as a six-inch conceptual model built by Terry Reid. The team used this three-dimensional sample to develop the design with director Ridley Scott. “There’s nothing like handing a director a model for him to play with and twist around,” Johnson recalls. He also remembers making frequent trips from his visual effects headquarters at Bray to the director and production staff at Shepperton as the Nostromo slowly evolved.
Once they had Ridley’s blessing (no easy feat, if you ask them), the bevy of designers at Bray began building the eleven by seven foot model, ironically called a “miniature.”
The Nostromo started as no more than a steel frame that was constructed to provide skeletal support to the massive (estimated at 500 pounds or more) final build. Chunks of solid wood were shaped and mounted on the steel to serve as the vessel’s “musculature.” Once the Nostromo had a sound understructure, Brian Johnson’s team went to work applying the “skin” to the Nostromo’s industrial surface. This group of artisans called themselves “The Widgeteers,” a dedicated team of detail-oriented engineers, applying hundreds of little plastic widgets in a tedious labor of madness and passion.
The Nostromo’s outer surface was brought to life via a method known as “kit-bashing” where the modellers would raid hobby shops for off-the-shelf model kits and then use the parts from those models to create the very functional-looking outer surface of the miniature. In the case of the Nostromo, certain model kits were “bashed” again and again to give the Nostromo life. Parts that were required in high multiples were sometimes obtained in batches from the models’ manufacturers. The most popular models farmed for their parts? A British Matilda tank from World War II, NASA’s space shuttle, and Darth Vader’s TIE-Fighter. The effects team then used chloroform to literally melt the plastic parts so that they could be shaped to the curving surface of the miniature. Once they were shaped, the chloroform would eat away at the thin styrene model parts, thus bonding them to the wooden understructure. With that much surface area and that many parts, one sincerely hopes that the modelers employed OSHA-approved ventilation during the build.
The build process would not be a streamlined one. Ridley Scott, like any mad genius (see Messers: Hitchcock, Kubrick, Cameron), was not a director to remain “hands off” during pre-production. He was constantly tinkering with not just the Nostromo, but all aspects of the film’s design. As tends to be the case in filmmaking, this didn’t sit well with his artisans. In recalling their work at Bray in 1978, they remember the frustration of having to change the physical model so many times even after it had been assembled and painted. In fact, the Nostromo was intended to be yellow to make it truly appear like an industrial space tugboat. This plan lived long enough that production photos exist of a very real and very yellow Nostromo. But, as the reader might agree, the look of this proved odd, somehow minimizing its imposing presence and muting the enormous amount of detail on the ship’s surface. At Ridley’s direction, the Nostromo was repainted a weathered gray, complete with all the grime and dirt that would be collected over decades of space travel.
Join us next week for part two, where the Nostromo comes to life and ALIEN becomes a sci-fi phenomenon.
As the design team likely suspected, the Nostromo’s evolution was not over. During production, Steven Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND was released to much fanfare. Upon seeing the breathtaking shot of the alien ship landing on Earth, Ridley was said to have declared, “We need more lights!”
There was already a bird’s nest worth of (glass) fiber-optics that electronics whiz John Stevens snaked through the Nostromo to create dozens of tiny lights that could be lit from a single source. But even with all that work, there was still nowhere near the amount of lights seen in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. Rather than setting back production by gutting the Nostromo and re-lighting it, a supplemental “belly” was built for the ship. This one with a massive amount of lights that could be attached to the existing model. The belly was cobbled together with wheat grain bulbs and whatever else the visual effects team could find lying around Bray Studios. It wasn’t a refined process, but if the film itself is suitable evidence, the effect ended up working seamlessly. This bit of movie magic can be seen in all its brilliant, hazy glory when the Nostromo comes in for a landing on the rocky, desolate planet where Kane picked up his little friend.
Also built to augment this surface sequence was a large-scale landing leg. Though still a miniature compared to the full-scale, twenty-five-foot tall leg built at Shepperton studios, this insert leg was big, over seven feet tall, making it comparable itself in size to the entire Nostromo miniature. This filming insert was given the task of providing a more dramatic entrance for the Nostromo by crushing a rock during the ship’s landing on the alien planet. Ridley was obsessed with the scale of the Nostromo, always wanting it to appear vast and cavernous. So much so that even with a full-scale, twenty-five-foot tall landing leg built, Ridley dressed small children (one of them his own) in space-suits to make the leg—and therefore the ship—seem twice as large as it physically was.
Despite the challenges of production, the reminiscing effects team looks back fondly on the experience and are all clearly quite proud of what came of it. The Nostromo has left an indelible mark on model-making and science-fiction art direction. The model itself now survives as both a monument to filmmaking history and an objet d’art that instantly evokes the noir-ish, industrialized future that Dan O’Bannon had envisioned. But when studying the history of sci-fi filmmaking with the very artisans who shaped its history and talking about the glory days of physical builds and motion-control cameras, it’s only a matter of time before the dreaded initials “C.G.” make their way into the conversation.
Some are practical about it, saying that there are great cost-savings that come into play with computer-generated models and that the “virtual” ships can be made to move in a way that’s still not possible even for top of the line motion-control rigs and modern filmmaking techniques.
But there’s a flip side of this coin that perhaps tarnishes the benefit.
“Computer generated aircraft don’t fly properly,” one of the original ALIEN visual effects team members said. It appears that, for all the algorithms, study, and technology, computers still have not figured out the physics of the real world. There is a great nostalgia present for the “good old days,” and maybe even a sadness that a stunning filming miniature like the Nostromo may never be built again. But others were more blunt in their assessment of the modern techniques.
“I hate this computer-generated crap.”
Wherever the science fiction film genre may have ended up after the last thirty years, it got there in large part due to the May 25, 1979 release of ALIEN. The film, though initially experiencing a “mixed” reception from critics, was a major commercial success. It raked in over 80 million dollars in the United States alone, nearly ten times its production budget. Audiences were thrilled and horrified, and many couldn’t stop going back to the theater to experience it all again. Religious zealots so reviled ALIEN’s “demonic” imagery that they set fire to the space jockey model when it was put on display at Grauman’s Egyptian theater in Los Angeles to promote the film.
Ridley Scott’s coming out party was a reckoning.
ALIEN took two genres that critics looked down their noses at—sci-fi and horror—and turned it into intellectually provocative, adult, elevated fare. The film won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, thanks in large part to the work of Brian Johnson’s team and the visionary design of H.R. Giger. Many films that came after would mimic ALIEN (and benefit from riding its coattails), but few since, even thirty years later, can be rightfully held up beside it.
But, all was not guaranteed. Brian Johnson recalls approaching the commercial director’s hire onto ALIEN with trepidation. “When I first started on Alien, Walter Hill was going to direct. I had no idea that instead of an accomplished screenplay writer who had also directed HARD TIMES and THE DRIVER… a [British] TV commercials director of repute and director of THE DUELLISTS… would take ALIEN to the heights that few directors would have equaled.” Johnson maintains a warm place in his heart for Ridley Scott, who he compares favorably to the visionary Stanley Kubrick for his shot composition. “Ridley had a massive influence on every effects shot and in my view [is] an equal to Stanley Kubrick in terms of composition of each image. Unlike Kubrick, who claimed the effects Oscar® for 2001 [A SPACE ODYSSEY]… Ridley did not claim to have title to the Alien effects Oscar. For that I am personally very grateful!”
And so the ALIEN production was then broken down, the sets were struck and the writer, director, producers, and crew carried on with their careers. But what about the Nostromo? What does one do with a spaceship that takes up seventy-seven square feet of space and that takes a team of men just to move it from room to room?
Any suggestions from you or Mother?
No, we’re still collating.
Next week, in our third installment, the Nostromo makes its voyage West, across the Atlantic, the Mississippi and the Rockies to land in the most famous driveway in prop collecting history.
The “basement” of Los Angeles resident Bob Burns has become a famous Mecca to sci-fi and horror fans everywhere. In truth, it’s really more a first floor edition as few Los Angeles residents have honest-to-goodness, dug-into-the-earth basements. But Bob’s private collection is an altar to all that is holy in genre filmmaking. His connection to sci-fi and horror stretches back to the campy heyday of the 1950s and 1960s when he worked as a producer of film and television and also as the host of a popular children’s TV program. During this time, he met and mentored many young geeky hopefuls who would eventually become visual effects wizards themselves. Burns was a collector for most of his life, so when his former protégés began making the models, props, and costumes that would be immortalized on film, his private museum saw a marked increase in donations.
The Burns collection was further bolstered by the popular Halloween show that he ran every October. Just as Burns isn’t your typical collector, he did not put on a typical Halloween show. He put on full-scale haunted houses that would see neighbors, travelers, and even industry folks lining up for blocks just to be a part of the realistic experiences Burns and his effects crew would conjure. After ALIEN was released in 1979, Burns didn’t even have to think about the theme of that year’s show. It was going to be ALIEN. What began as an innocent call to 20th Century Fox simply looking for permission to put on the show created, well, a monster. In fact, the response Burns received still floors him.
Fox not only gave Burns permission. They gave him props.
With authentic creatures, set pieces, costumes, and props from the hit movie, the Halloween show was a runaway hit. So pleased was 20th Century Fox with Burns’s sci-fi-horror spectacular that they ended up donating many of the ALIEN props, models, and costumes that had been shipped in from England’s Shepperton Studios to Burns’s private museum.
It was here that the Nostromo would make its next stop. Burns knew that if he did not agree to take the massive filming miniature into his museum—where it could be visited and enjoyed for years to come—it would likely be abandoned or destroyed. Burns, ever the film historian, simply would not have that. The problem was, even if his generously-proportioned basement existed yet (it didn’t), it wouldn’t be big enough to house the space-hogging space tug. And so, the Nostromo was delivered to Burns where it was lowered into his driveway… by crane.
Visitors came and went and saw and enjoyed the Notsromo where it rested, right there in Burns’s driveway. But there was really no other place for it to go. So that’s where the Nostromo would live on for nearly two decades, cared for the best way Burns could manage with the resources he had available—protected from the elements with a series of waterproof tarps.
Unfortunately, even with the best shelter Bob could provide, time still would not be kind to the Nostromo. Between drenching Southern Californian rainy seasons and wood-and-plastic-splitting heat of the summers that would follow, the miniature was tortured by nature for some twenty years. Although some have questioned the propriety of the Nostromo’s living quarters during its time in Burns’s collection, it is very clear to one who reviews the history that, had it not been for the generous donation of his driveway, the Nostromo would not have survived at all. It was not the ideal storage facility, but Burns’ driveway was a better place for the Nostromo than an industrial dumpster at 20th Century Fox.
In the late 1990s, Burns knew that the Nostromo was in rough shape. He sent up the bat-signal (no, that particular prop is not in his basement) and called in a favor from one of his many close relationships in the visual effects industry: Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger of KNB Effects. Not wishing to see such a beloved piece of movie history endure any more torture at the hands of the San Fernando Valley, Nicotero and Berger happily took the Nostromo in like some kind of sci-fi foster child. KNB had full intent to rehabilitate and restore the ravaged miniature themselves, but real movies and production gigs kept preventing them from completing their passion project. So there the Nostromo sat for nearly eight years, hurting but now dry and cool, tucked away in a storage locker.
The hope for a rescue of the marooned spacecraft via a complete restoration thrived as a persistent tease, but it was not a reality.
At least not yet.